by Frank Schnittger
Thu Dec 30th, 2010 at 07:20:14 PM EST
The Christmas to New Year period is traditionally when I draw breath and take time out to think about the year ahead. For Ireland, 2010 has been about as traumatic a year as we have faced in the last century, ranking with the insurrection of 1916; the Civil War in 1922; the economic war with Britain in the I930's; the "Emergency" as the Second World War was called in Ireland; the Mother and child scheme debacle which marked the high point of Rome Rule in Ireland in 1950/51; and the cataclysmic events of Bloody Sunday in 1972 which undermined the constitutional civil rights movement, radicalised nationalism, and led to a 30 years urban guerilla war between the Provisional IRA and Britain. Some may challenge this assertion on the grounds that no one died in the banking bail-out. However the cutbacks in health care, social welfare and infrastructural development will do nothing but harm to Ireland's mortality rate.
The political fall-out from the Irish banking crisis, where the Irish Government effectively took 50% of Irish GDP's worth of public money and gave it to the mostly foreign banks who were private investors in private Irish banks, is still working its way through the Irish political system. A General election is expected to take place sometime in or around March 2011 and all polls predict a humiliating defeat for Fianna Fail, the dominant ruling party in Ireland since 1932. Some commentators caution that such polls often don't pan out that way in practice, and that, in any case, dramatic falls from grace by ruling parties are often subsequently reversed, as in Denmark in 1973 and Canada in 1993.
My great fear is that the election could result in not very much change at all, with an equally conservative Fine Gael Party largely taking over from Fianna Fail as the dominant government party pursuing policies only cosmetically different from the austerity drive now agreed between the Government, the ECB and the IMF. For the moment, the TINA narrative is taking hold, and those few economists and others arguing for a default or radical renegotiation of the ECB/IMF deal remain very much voices from outside the establishment. National confidence has taken a huge beating, and many people simply do not see taking on the EU and the international "financial community" as a viable option, particularly as it is claimed the government will now have to start drawing down those ECB/IMF loans to further bail-out the banks and to fund current government expenditure from mid 2011 onwards.
Fine Gael has taken the opportunity to have a go at what they see as a hugely inefficient and bloated public sector, as if that was the cause of all our woes. Expenditure abuses and inefficiencies certainly did, and to a lesser extent, still do, exist. But they are minuscule compared to to the abuses in the private banking sector and the property speculation business it funded. To some extent it is a case of old money (Fine Gael) getting its own back at the slightly less old (Fianna Fail) which only discovered its "entrepreneurial" instincts since the 1960's, and which came unstuck rather dramatically with the financial abuses of the naughties. It certainly isn't about a radical overhaul of the Irish society class structure, or a fundamental rethink about how the Irish Nation should be led in the years ahead.
Too often Labour has just been the rather smug make-weight between the two, making up whatever numerical deficit stood between either Fianna Fail or Fianna Gael and a governing majority. There was a time when "the Seventies will be Socialist" Labour genuinely tried to provide an alternative. But too often its appeal is based on marginally more redistributive policies or claims to managerial probity and competence. Now it is becoming the party of refuge for those public sector workers who feel betrayed by both Fianna Fail and Fianna Gael, but that liaison could prove very short-lived indeed if Labour, as is their norm, end up becoming the junior partner in an austerity driven Fine Gael led administration.
Perhaps the most damaging legacy of the "Celtic Tiger" era is the degree of greed and cynicism it spawned. Almost gone is the youthful idealism often seen during my youth and few seem to engage in politics for anything other than personal career advancement. The very notion that you might embark on a career in public service in order to further to the common good seems more likely to be greeted by yawns, guffaws, cynicism or just plain ridicule. The calibre of public representatives is thus very low: good local constituency workers, assiduous funeral attenders, a few popular publicans, solicitors, auctioneers, teachers and former sportsmen - but almost none who are outstandingly articulate, major intellects, consummate legislators or experienced in leading large organisations.
None of which would matter too much if the calibre of the Civil Service leadership teams had remained high. But here too a culture of time serving, place holding, mutual back-scratching, and fawning incompetence seems to have taken hold. There is little evidence of intellectual capability - no Keynes, or no Dr. T.K. Whitaker, who is often given much of the credit for the 1960's turnaround in the Irish economy. Now many of our brightest and best are emigrating and the country risks becoming once again the stagnant cesspool of maudlin self pity and scapegoat seeking so reminiscent of my early youth.
Except I don't think that this is what is going to happen.
Firstly, at a political level, Sinn Féin will pose a significant threat to Labour and force a more assertive leftward stance. Labour in Government, even as the junior partner, will have to insist on a substantial renegotiation of the ECB/IMF deal or face its own obliteration at the polls in due course when that deal results in unsustainable interest payments and a spiralling descent into sustained depression as the debt/GDP ratio rises ever further. With Morgan Kelly, David McWilliams and others shouting ever louder from the newspaper rooftops, it will no longer be possible to claim TINA or that they had no choice.
People are looking for a choice, and if Labour does not provide it, they will look elsewhere. Enter, stage left, Sinn Féin and a variety of independents, many of them with a distinctly redder hue than the mildly pink "smoked salmon" socialist tinge so often associated with the Labour party in Ireland. As yet Labour is making no sustained alternative argument to the ECB/IMF austerity plan - preferring to look backwards and continue blaming Fianna Fail for the misguided banking guarantee and bail-out. That point is generally accepted but what people really want to know is what different policies are Labour going to pursue in the future?
It is hardly a coincidence that Labour is now well behind Fine Gael having briefly been the most popular party in Ireland in previous polls in June and September. Recent gains have been by Fine Gael and Sinn Féin - at the expense of Fianna Fail and Labour - so it is high time that Labour abandon the shallow populist policies more commonly associated with Fianna Fail. Fianna Fail is now at rock bottom (13-17% in recent polls) and so there are no more votes to be had from that quarter. If Labour is to recover first position it is going to have to win the economic argument with Fine Gael and compete with Sinn Féin.
So my wish list for the new year is an election as soon as possible fought on actual policy proposals and arguments rather than personalities and with the electorate given a real choice. We've had enough of Civil War politics and the parties arising from that conflict. It's time for a new political dispensation in Ireland. So far a variety of small groups have sprung up to try and meet that need, but the most fundamental change required is a re-polarisation of Irish politics away from civil war to civil consent.
The days of governments playing fast and loose with public money must be over. Scape-goating the poor and the public service will not wash. In today's integrated, globalised financial world, the "Irish" banks are no more Irish than Microsoft's Irish operations. If the international financial community want to invest in Ireland, they must bear the risks as well as the profits. And if Merkel wants to punish the profligate, she had better start with the banks closer to her home which made some very bad investment decisions and which had no call on Irish taxpayer's resources - or the public infrastructural investment, health care, social welfare and educational services for which they should have been deployed.